Tech booms, grift, and LLMs

My working life has mostly been in computer technology and software. Mostly as a technical writer but also as a SysAdmin and technology journalist.

And, in my time, I’ve lived and worked through four so-called tech booms:

  1. The Internet/World-wide Web boom of the late-1990s;

  2. The mobile computing and social media boom of the late-2000s (ie, the rise of the iPhone and then the iPhone clones running Android, all coincident with the rise of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, &c);

  3. The Blockchain/crypto boom; and

  4. The LLMs-that-everyone-erroneously-calls-AIs boom.

And I think I’ve figured out what bothers me most particularly about the current wave of Railway Mania.

The grifters are so obviously in charge of this boom and yet millions of people and millions of businesses are still betting various farms on LLMs.

I don’t mean to suggest grifters weren’t a big part of the three earlier booms. Grifters, operating both inside and outside the framework of legality, are always a key driving force in booms.

But the Internet/World-wide Web boom, and the computer-in-your-pocket-plus-social-media boom both had real, and apparent even at the time, structural and technological change built in to them.

Even my reflexively-suspicious-of-all-grand-narratives-by-dint-of-my-upbringing-and-culture self understood that, the inevitable grift notwithstanding, these two booms were happening because significant technological change was happening at enormous scale.

By contrast, the Blockchain/crypto boom smelled off from the start.

The grifters were more apparent in this boom because the actual thing underlying the con — distributed databases with records linked by cryptographic hashes — was underwhelming, at best.

There was pretty clearly no steak, but there wasn’t even much sizzle. To paraphrase and re-purpose Gertrude Stein’s famous line, there was no there, there.

LLMs have much better sizzle than blockchains had (or have). So I get the interest and even the fascination. This stuff demos really well.

But the people at the helms of the companies promoting the sizzle, are so obviously grifting rather than selling.

It is depressing — but not surprising — to be reminded, again at enormous scale, that, thanks to our selected-for cognitive biases, we

  1. still conflate confidence with competence and;

  2. still treat the attention of the many as powerful evidence for the truth or intrinsic importance of the thing being paid attention to.

You were hired to write

You were hired because ‘[a] writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people’ (Thomas Mann, Essays of Three Decades, 1942). If it was easy, there’d be little call to pay for it.

That said, writing for money (aka wordsmithing) is not currently on firm professional ground. Of course wordsmithing has never really been on firm professional ground. Writing for pay has always been either a trade or (and only very recently) a very suspect profession.

So, if we’re not on a solid professional platform, how do we do our job, especially in a white-collar environment? Like every other tradesperson: by plying our trade competently and acquiring authority as a direct result.

NYU Professor of Journalism, Jay Rosen, recently noted that, ‘the most reliable source of authority for a professional journalist will continue to be what James W Carey called “the idea of a report.” That’s when you can truthfully say to the users, “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.”’ (Jay Rosen, ‘The Journalists Formerly Known as the Media: My Advice to the Next Generation’ 2010/09/06).

Rosen’s succinct, one-sentence definition of journalism requires only minor tweaking to be a succinct, one-sentence definition of technical writing:

I understand this, you don’t, let me explain it to you.

Let’s unpack this Rosen paraphrase to ram home Mann’s point about this not being an easy trade.

  1. I understand this

    Do you? Really?

    You’re writing a procedure to setup environment variables for a Java Application Server. And you’re writing a how-to on Linux kernel tuning. And you are explaining a display bug that only presents when using an iBus-based input method and an alpha-syllabic alphabet.

    Do you understand Java? Application Servers? Environment variables? Operating system kernels? The Linux kernel? iBus? Input methods? Abugida script systems?

    Do you? Really?

    If you don’t understand, you won’t know if the right information is being sent across.

  2. you don’t

    Do you know what your audience does and does not know?

    Your audience will say they don’t want to understand. They just want to accomplish their task (ie set the optimum Environment variable values; tune the kernel to perform as they want; or install the patch because they now know it addresses the bug their users are complaining about).

    I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt here: I’ll allow that you realise your audience’s claim means they do want to understand, they just don’t want to work hard (or at all) to achieve that understanding. I’ll even allow that you’ve a notion (however ill-formed) of your audience’s knowledge, experience and ignorance.

    So, can you pitch your procedure or your how-to or your explanation just right? Can you make it clear and understandable without making it hard to parse. Can you filter in the necessary details and filter out the un-necessary details?

    If you don’t get the pitch right, you won’t get the information across.

  3. let me explain it to you

    Can you?

    Understanding something does not mean you can explain it to others. Knowing your audience doesn’t mean you can get them to listen to you.

    Explanation, like all communication, means engaging someone else’s attention. If you can’t engage the audience (which, in this case, means write engaging prose), your understanding and knowledge count for nothing.

    If you don’t engage the audience, you can’t get the information across.

Put it all together and it means technical writers need to understand the material, know their audience, and write engaging prose.

Aside from making Mann’s point for him (albeit less succinctly and less elegantly) some other consequences flow from this.

  1. A technical writer’s skill set is identical to that of any competent writer. So let’s lose the adjective and go back to ‘writer’ from here on.

  2. A writer’s skill set explains why most people aren’t competent writers. There are plenty of experts but most have no interest in, let alone awareness of, their potential audience (read developer comments in any bug-tracking database for half-an-hour to have this point hammered home hard). The occasional expert who is interested in their audience is still unlikely to have an engaging turn of phrase.

    And, while there are plenty of people interested in engaging an audience, they are routinely expert in nothing but their own narcissism.

  3. This skill set also explains why most people don’t think being a writer is difficult. Most people think communication is easy, since the people around them appear to understand them easily and automatically.

    If you can’t imagine why something is difficult to do, you aren’t going to understand why others think mastering it is worthy of time, respect and a decent salary.

This last point brings us back to writing as a trade: you won’t be respected by dint of having Writer as your job title. You might be respected for writing well. More important than the respect of strangers, however, is money.

And you were hired to write.

Which means you’re expected to understand the material, because you’re being paid to understand the material. And you’re expected to know your audience, because you’re being paid to know your audience. And you’re expected to engage your audience, because you’re being paid to engage your audience.

And you were hired to write because you write better than all those other people who don’t think writing is all that difficult.

So, when you’re writing about Java we assume you know Java, and you know Java users and you can engage them. And when you’re writing about the kernel, we assume you know the kernel, and you know kernel users and you can engage them. And when you’re writing about iBus and alpha-syllabic alphabets, we assume you know about iBus and alpha-syllabic alphabets and you know iBus and alpha-syllabic alphabet users and you can engage them.

Moreover, if you don’t know about Java or the kernel or iBus when you’re assigned a Java or kernel or iBus project, we also assume you will learn. You’ll learn the subject and you’ll learn the audience and you’ll engage with both effectively and well.

Because that’s why you were hired.

Thinking out loud about self-publishing

Independent film-making and independent music-making are long-standing and well-respected artistic and commercial endeavours. And, in both fields, ‘independent’ basically means self-funded

(NB: the term gets a bit stretched in both fields. It’s perhaps more accurate to describe independent music and film makers as those who either self-fund or self-raise their funding. That is, they either spend their own money to make the film or music or they raise the money to do so from other investors directly. In either case, they don’t get funding from their given field’s extant publisher equivalents: businesses that make money by marketing and distributing their works for profit.)

The equivalent behaviour in the book-writing field is, of course, self-publishing. And, unlike independent film- and music-making, self-publishing doesn’t have storied social status or value. In fact, it’s routinely seen as no better than (or even worse than) vanity publishing. This despite dozens of well-respected and successful authors taking to self-publishing over the centuries from John Milton’s Areopagitica in 1644 through Christopher Paolini’s Eragon in 2003 and beyond. (Others to take the self-publishing route include William Blake, Howard Fast, E Lynn Harris, James Joyce, William Morris, Wendy and Richard Pini, Matthew Reilly, Irma Rombauer, Dave Sim, Edward Tufte, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf.)

On 2011/01/02, legendary literary agent, Richard Curtis, posted an article to his [e-reads] blog, ‘Do Authors Make Good Publishers’:

Do authors make good publishers? The answer is No. But it’s fascinating to watch them try.

In the way of things electronic, this prompted an immediate response all over the Interwebs, which prompted Curtis to publish a follow-up:

A blog I posted yesterday, Do Authors Make Good Publishers?, generated a record number of hits and a storm of comments, many of them fiercely refuting my contention that the answer to the question is No. The controversy even found its way onto Huffington Post.

As Curtis notes, the follow-up is mostly a re-posting (with permission) of J A Konrath’s own response, first posted on Konrath’s own blog, A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing, as the article ‘A Response to Richard Curtis’.

Near the beginning of said response, Konrath links to another of his blog postings, ‘You Should Self-Publish’ in which he notes he is (as of December 2010) ‘selling 1,000 ebooks a day’ and that:

Two close friends of mine have books on submission, waiting for the Big 6 to make offers. They’ve been waiting for a few months, and will probably have to wait a few months more.

Even being conservative in my estimates, these writers have lost thousands of dollars, and will continue to lose money every single day their books are on submission, rather than on Amazon.

Selling 1,000 ebooks a month equals $24,000 a year. Being on submission for 6 months is a loss of $12,000, and then waiting 18 more months for the book to be published is a loss of another $36,000.

He also notes that selling a 1,000 books a month is ‘a very conservative number — I have ebooks regularly selling 2000 or 3000 a month.’ He further notes that:

I'm on track to make over $200,000 on ebook sales in 2011, and have made over $100,000 this year. So I can earn more in two years on my own than I could in seven years with a traditional publisher. Hell, I earned more this month than I got as an advance for Afraid ($20k for Afraid, $22k for this December self-pubbing.)

Back at his article ‘A Response to Richard Curtis’, he gets more specific than ‘two close friends’ and calls out four authors — LJ Sellers, HP Mallory, Michael R Sullivan and Amanda Hocking — doing particularly well as ebook self-publishers and lists a further 43 ‘authors selling more than 1,000 ebooks a month, none of who had any traditional publishing background’.

I’d not heard of any of the listed authors but some quick searching turned most of them up quickly enough. Consider only the first and last five in Konrath’s list (minus ‘B Tackitt’ who I could only track down as a poster of interesting stuff on e-reader forums), all with an added sprinkle of hypertextual goodness:

Like the four called out above, these people aren’t producing works that look self-published.

In something of a follow-up, Konrath published a Guest Post by Robin Sullivan which provides rounded sales numbers (and links to the Amazon book pages) for 25 self-published authors, all of whom sold more than 2,500 copies of their various titles during December 2010.

The author list Sullivan includes in her guest post appears to be a sub-set of the list she published on the KindleBoards web-forum on 2011/01/01 as a post entitled ‘Dec 2010, 1000 books a month club (TBOM)’. (Stephen Leather is listed in the guest post but not in her KindleBoard posting. Also, I’m assuming ‘Michael Sullivan’ and ‘Michael R Sullivan’ are the same person: her husband.)

Another self-publishing author, Derek J Canyon, took the KindleBoards list and did some number and genre analysis on his blog Adventures in ePublishing. On the numbers front, he asks and answers the following key question:

[I]s 1,000 or more sales per month an indicator of success? That’s a good question. We don’t know how many of those books were given away for free or for a low price such as $0.99 (which would garner the author only $0.35 per sale).

But, even at a cover price of only $0.99, an author would make $350/month if they sold 1,000 units. That’s $4,200 per year. That’s not enough for a career, but it is a very nice income boost. I’d call this a success for any “hobbyist” or newbie author. If I make $4,200 this year, I'll certainly consider it a success.

If you assume that the cover price of the book is $2.99 (the minimum required to receive a 70% royalty from Amazon), then the author is making just over $2,000 per month, or $24,000 per year! Even after Uncle Sam takes his cut, the author is probably left with a very good chunk of change. Enough for a couple very nice vacations a year, a snazzy home theater system, or a down payment on a house. I’d call this an unqualified success.

Anything more than $2,000 a month is getting close to being enough to live on comfortably. So, I’d say that 1,000+ sales per month is a success no matter how you cut it.

Which brings us back to the opening point, about self-publishing’s low social status. If I could add $2,000.00 a month to my gross income (no need to distinguish between A$ and US$ while the two currencies are hovering around parity), I suspect I’d take the same position as Joe Konrath does in his afore-mentioned article ‘You Should Self-Publish’:

As a writer, I could give a shit what the New York Times thinks of my latest, or if MWA gives me an Edgar award, or if I’m on a shelf in the Podunk Public Library. Those are all ego strokes.

I care about money, and reaching readers, and none of these things are necessary to make money or reach readers.

So, should writers take Konrath’s advice and self-publish? Perhaps….

There are at least two other questions to answer first. The first is practical: how much work is actually involved in turning a manuscript into a saleable product?

As I noted above, the folk doing well as self-publishers are producing a professional looking product. You can’t do that without effort, so anyone considering this route needs to understand how much effort is involved and know if they can put in that effort.

NB: assumed and otherwise unsaid in all this is that the professional looking product contains professional-grade prose. If you take some time wandering around the various author-sites linked to above, a common thread you’ll find is their professional approach to the craft. Most got close to, or even made it to, traditional publishing contracts or agency representation. Those that didn’t (most notably, Amanda Hocking) still took the work seriously, attending writing courses, writing a lot, and treating their work with appropriate editorial care.

Like the folks doing well, I’ve gotten close to traditional publishing contracts and I don’t think I’m deluding myself when I say I take a professional approach and produce professional-grade prose. If nothing else, earning my keep as a writer and editor for most of the last twenty-five years suggests other people believe this.

That said, I’ve turned other people’s manuscripts into books, and I’ve built a few dozen web-sites over the years. I know there’s a chunk of work involved turning a manuscript into a product, so it’s sensible to get an idea of how much work there is.

I suspect it’s about as much work as turning a manuscript into a printed book, or laying down the infrastructure for a professional web-site: ie a non-trivial but doable workload. I also suspect — at least with regards ebooks — it’s something of a combination of turning a manuscript into a printed book and laying down the infrastructure for a professional web-site.

Which brings us to the second question: what about marketing?

As Amanda Hocking notes in an interview with Tonya Plank published on The Huffington Post:

TP: What has been your strategy for marketing and publicizing your books?

AH: I didn’t really have a strategy. I think one of the advantages I have is that stuff considered marketing is stuff that I do a lot anyway. I’ve been active on social networks and blogs for years. I also send ARCs [advance review copies] out to book bloggers. Book bloggers are a really amazing community, and they’ve been tremendously supportive. They’ve definitely been a major force that got my books on the map.

When I first published, I did do a bit of promoting on the Amazon forums, but they’re not really open to that, so I haven’t really interacted there much at all in months. I hang out [on] Goodreads, Kindleboards, Facebook, Twitter, and I blog. And that’s about it.

The stuff Hocking does ‘a lot’ is stuff I clearly don’t do much of at all. I’ve got two blogs: Between Borders and Non-Standard Deviation. I’ve kept the underlying WordPress installations up-to-date, but I’ve not been what you’d call a prolific poster.

Similarly, I have a twitter account with exactly one posting. I use it to follow others, and those I follow mostly use Twitter as a convenient alternative to producing a link blog (ie a blog mostly consisting of links to articles they are interested in rather than a blog made up of articles of their own).

Not to say I can’t do this stuff, but deciding if it’s worth while isn’t as obvious as it appears.

This said, this little exercise in thinking out-loud (so to speak) has gone on long enough. Stay tuned for more on the two questions directly.

We came so far for beauty: a useful metaphor

The sub-set of Mac OS X users and developer who actively prefer the platform to others = Oscar Wilde.

The sub-set of Linux users and developers who actively prefer the platform to others = H G Wells.

The metaphor's potential use is in its ability to make evident the often cross-purposes arguments of each community.

Both Wilde and Wells were concerned about the good people could and should do.

Wilde, however, saw good in aesthetic terms. Good is a form of beauty, and to the extent something isn't beautiful, it is not as good as it could or should be.

Wells, by contrast, saw good in ethical terms. Good is a form of worth, and to the extent something isn't worthy, it is not as good as it could or should be.

This simplifies the concerns of both men enormously, of course. And it doesn't map perfectly to the two communities, either.

But I've found these notions useful when I encounter yet another interminable ‘Mac OS X is just empty prettiness' trolling from the Linux community, or the roughly equivalent Mac OS X moron's troll: Linux is just a tech-weenie's paradise, with no idea of what ordinary people want or need.

Neither of these bits of trollish invective are useful discussion points. But they reveal assumptions both communities do appear to hold about the other.

And, when I apply the differences between Wilde's and Wells's concerns and priorities as presented above, it's easier to prise the assumptions out from the rhetoric.

To the stereotype Linux user, those Wildean, effete, Mac OS X users care only for prettiness, and this is a bad thing because it excuses or ignores the unworthy, even evil, things Apple and others do.

The stereotype, Wildean, effete, Mac OS X user, in response, argues that beauty is not just a surface quality, but a fundamental aspect of an object's purpose and existence. Moreover, inflicting ugly things on the world is deeply wrong: it causes real harm, even deadly harm.

To the stereotype Mac OS X user, those Wellsian, phlegmatic Linux users care only for engineering, and this is a bad thing because it excuses or ignores the pain, even hurt, this ugliness causes.

The stereotype, Wellsian, phlegmatic Linux user, in response, argues that engineering is not just an annoying necessity, but the basic truth of an object's purpose and existence. Moreover, inflicting poor engineering on the world is deeply wrong: it causes real harm, even deadly harm.

And, of course, both my faux-literary-giant straw men are right and both my faux-literary-giant straw men are wrong.

Wilde's aesthetics didn't make him blind to practicality, any more than Wells's ethics made him blind to beauty.

But, their ability to understand, or at least appreciate, the other's perspective didn't mean their differences were only ones of degree.

To agree with Wilde is to agree that beauty is a fundamental part of the problem of 'how to be and do good'. To agree with Wells is to agree that function is a fundamental part of the problem of 'how to be and do good'.

From the Wildean perspective, beauty is part of how things (indeed the entire world) function. From the Wellsian perspective, beauty is a consequence of how things (indeed the entire world) functions.

These are deeper differences than they first appear, so I'm not expecting rapproachment between the two communties anytime soon.

More practically, however, awareness of this deep underlying difference might reduce the number of pointless arguments. So long as the metaphor makes it easier to detect that disagreeing parties are talking at cross-purposes, it will be useful.

three addenda

A clarifying point: I suspect the majority of computer users, even Mac OS X and Linux users, don't actively prefer any particular platform. Further, I suspect the majority of computer users are, at best, indifferent, to computers. The metaphor is of no especial value with regards the point of view of this majority who don't have a particular preference about the computer they use.

A disclosure: I am a member of that sub-set of Mac OS X users and developers who actively prefer the platform to others. At the same time, I work for Red Hat, a company replete with members of that sub-set of Linux users and developers who actively prefer that platform to others.

That said, working for Red Hat has made me more inclined to conclude that even Linux users don't necessarily prefer the platform they are using. I've encountered more than a few co-workers, good at their jobs and hard workers all, who use Linux primarily because it is (not surprisingly) mandated by the company.

A pre-emptive note: yes, the title is a tiny variation on the song title by Leonard Cohen. I knew that when I wrote the title. The song itself has only tangential connections to this piece. The title, however, struck me as being apposite enough to reference.

A Mundane Menacing

A mid-Winter's day. 2006/06/26 09:25 Australian Central Standard Time, to be precise.

I'd just dropped my wife off to work near the entrance to Peel Street on Currie. Strictly speaking it's an illegal stop. The car is straddling a bus zone and mostly blocking said entrance. Peel Street is closed to all but local traffic until August due to road works, however, so I don't feel even a moment's pang of guilt, especially since I've not blocked any actual buses or cars in the ten seconds I'm idling.

Having pulled out into Currie proper I'm now sitting in the right-hand lane, waiting with half-a-dozen other cars for the light to change so we can cross or turn onto King William Street.

It's about as mundane a setting as you could find in any city on earth. People in cars and on bikes and on footpaths going about their day.

Unfortunately, on the footpath to my left, only a lane away, something ugly and stupid is happening. Even worse, for all its ugliness, this happening is as mundane as the cars and bicycles.

A big, beefy yob (190cm tall and on the plus side of 100 kilos) is shouting at, harrassing and threatening someone walking beside him.

He's close to violence.

The object of his ire? A woman. 155cm tops, perhaps 60 kilos.

Oh, and she's dressed according to someone's interpretation of Hijab. (I'm no expert on the subtleties of these dress codes, but it looks like she's wearing an abaya and a headscarf).

She's half his weight, 20% shorter and half as strong. Which makes her a more than suitable opponent apparently. A fine example of Anglo-Saxon masculinity in action.

It's good to know some of the lessons of our 'bully those weaker than you but tug the forelock extensively when the bigger guys are around' Federal and State Governments are making it down to the street.

To top it off, he has his wife and daughter (who can't be more than 7) with him. I wonder what life lesson they're getting today?

Perhaps the lesson is 'it's OK to menace and demean those weaker and smaller than you.' Or maybe he's just emphasising to them both that, on this street at least, he's the bigger, tougher guy and they shouldn't forget that, especially when we get home and there's no-one watching. After all, a burly bloke who's willing to threaten a small woman in the street is probably willing to do a lot more to an even smaller girl in the privacy of home.

Whichever, they're good solid Family Values, at least so far as the term is used by people like Brian 'I've got a conservative, biblical idea that a man should take a role of leadership in his life' Houston and Nancy 'there is nothing more hideous than seeing a wife stand up to her husband' Campbell. So, that's positive news on the street-level success of their evangelical efforts as well.

As for the small woman wearing a headscarf? I don't know what worthwhile lessons you can draw from being threatened by a large, menacing stranger.

The few times it's happened to me the only things I took away from the encounters were a sharp distress at being hated or feared simply because I existed; a permanent concern there was nothing I could do or say that would deflect or diminish that hatred and fear; and a growing willingness to see violence as a legitimate, perhaps even necessary, response to such a menace. Nothing particularly worthwhile in any of that.

The yob's wife pulled at him to stop and the small woman turned up King William Street and away from the immediate threat of assault.

The light changed and the people in cars and on bikes and on footpaths (including the yob, the small woman and myself) continued about their day.

In Praise of Voting Below the Line


I've just voted. Or, more precisely, I voted about fifteen minutes ago and I've just finished the walk home from my local polling station.

There are an almost infinite array of things to take delight from when voting.

The fact that our elections are conducted by fellow citizens, wearing nothing more than a laser-printed badge saying 'polling official' (prima facie evidence of a working civil structure).

The father behind me in the queue explaining, quite specifically, what he's about to do (and why) to his kids, who are coming along with him because they're already convinced voting is a cool and interesting thing to do.

The crowd of people from a dozen or so ethnic and national backgrounds happily hardening their arteries by scarfing $2.00 serves of grilled-sausage-on-white-bread-with-grilled-onions-&-lashings-of-tomato-sauce after voting. (Like many polling booths in South Australia, mine is on the grounds of a primary school, and said school is doing a little fund-raising via a semi-captive audience).

But, just now, it's not the nobility of democracy in action, nor the worthiness of a healthy civil system, I'm moved to note. It's my unashamed shadenfreude at filling out my Legislative Assembly ballot below the line. (Shadenfreude aside, I vote this way because voting above the line gives too much power to the preference deal-makers within the various parties standing for election.)

There are 54 people standing for 11 open seats in the upper house this election and some of them are truly awful.

Now, I could vituperate these folk. I could suggest Barbara Pannach and Basil Hille (the two One Nation candidates) are representatives of a paranoid, xenophobic, anti-intellectual, anti-reality, 'I can't handle complexity and want things to be the way I thought they were when I was young and stupid' party.

I could say that Dennis Hood (number one candidate for Family First) is a hateful fundamentalist who's arrogant swagger and self-righteous religiosity remind me more of Elmer Gantry than they do St Francis of Assisi or Hillel the Elder.

But it's a lot more fun to put the numbers 52, 53 and 54 against their names as I finish laying down my preferences.

And it's a lot more fun because vitriol doesn't do anything but make me feel (temporarily) better. Putting these pathetic examples of adulthood last on a ballot paper means I've taken a concrete step towards these folk not getting into parliament.

Of course, if there are enough xenophobic dullards or sanctimonious fundamentalists out there, Dennis or Barbara (and even Basil, if there are an appalling number of xenophobic dullards) may still end up taking up space and time on the corner of North Terrace & King William Street.

But it won't be because I've not done my personal bit to prevent them.

Twice as Cold as 0°C

It probably says more about me than anything else, but I've been asked the following question at least half-a-dozen times. In the interests of having a place to point future questioners I offer the following answer to the (apparently common) question:

if the temperature today is 0°C, and it will be twice as cold tomorrow, what will the temperature be tomorrow?

And the instant answer is:


Which is, in human terms, rather cold. The lowest temperature recorded and confirmed on Earth is -89.4°C, recorded on 21st July 1983, at Vostok, a Russian research station in Antarctica.

It's also a rather dramatic drop in temperature. A lot colder than most people guess when they ask this or similar questions.

So, how did I arrive at this apparently drastic figure, and how do you divide zero by two and get a number other than zero in the first place?

The answers to both questions derive from the same, usually overlooked, point: the Celsius temperature scale, like the Fahrenheit scale (and many other, now obsolete, temperature scales such as the Newton, Romer, Delisle, Leyden, Dalton, Wedgewood, Hales, Ducrest, Edinburgh and Florentine scales) is a relative scale.

0°C isn't the same as 0mm wide or 0V of electrical potential. Both these latter are absolute measures. You can't get narrower than 0mm and you can't get less electrical potential than 0V.

You can get colder than 0°C, however, since 0°C is just the freezing point of water.

So, to arrive at the frigid forecast above I simply converted the first figure to an absolute temperature scale (the Kelvin scale), halved it and then converted it back to Celsius.

Makes sense now? I didn't think so.

Let's step back a bit and take a look at the relative temperature scales, starting with the oldest temperature scale still in regular use.

The Fahrenheit scale, developed in 1724 by Gabriel Fahrenheit, used mercury to measure changes in temperature, since mercury exhibits consistent changes when it undergoes thermal change. Mercury expands and contracts as the temperature changes and this volume change is both uniform across a wide range and large enough to measure accurately.

In addition, mercury is cohesive rather than adhesive, so it doesn't stick to the only transparent substance Fahrenheit had access to: glass. Finally, mercury is bright silver, making it easy to visually distinguish changes in liquid volume in a narrow tube.

Fahrenheit began by placing his mercury thermometer in a mixture of salt, ice and water. The point the mercury settled to on his thermometer was considered zero.

He then placed the thermometer in a mixture of ice and water. The point the mercury settled to this time was set as 30. Finally, 'if the thermometer is placed in the mouth so as to acquire the heat of a healthy man' the point the mercury reaches is set to 96.

Using this scale, water boils at 212 and it freezes at 32. This latter number is an adjusted figure on Fahrenheit's part: it made the difference between boiling and freezing a relatively clean 180.

[NB, the above chronology isn't the only possible process Fahrenheit undertook. The Wikipedia article on the Fahrenheit temperature scale notes several other mooted explanations. Cecil Adams's The Straight Dope site also covers the origins of the Fahrenheit scale, focusing on the more amusing (or bemusing) possibilities.]

Less than twenty years after Fahrenheit's scale was developed, the Celsius scale was created by Swedish astronomer Anders Celsius. His scale used the freezing and boiling points of water as the two key markers and put 100 degrees between the two temperatures.

Unlike today, however, in Celsius's original scale, water's boiling point was 0 and the freezing point 100.

In the years after his death in 1744, the numbering scheme was reversed. This change is routinely credited to another great Swede, Carl Linnaeus (also known as Carolus Linnaeus) but the evidence for this is circumstantial and not particularly convincing.

Numbering scheme aside, the modern Celsius scale (used pretty much everywhere on earth except the United States) is different from the one Celsius developed.

It doesn't make much difference in day-to-day use, but the basis of the modern Celsius scale is the triple-point of water. The triple-point of a substance is the temperature and pressure at which the solid, liquid and gaseous states of said substance can all co-exist in equilibrium. And the triple-point of water is defined as 0.01°C.

As well, each degree Celsius is now defined abstractly. In Celsius's original scale a one degree change in temperature was defined as a 1% change in relative temperature between two externally referenced circumstances (ie the boiling and freezing points of water).

Today, a degree Celsius is defined as the temperature change equivalent to a single degree change on the ideal gas scale.

The ideal gas scale brings us almost to the point (finally, I hear you cry). As noted at the beginning of all this, the temperature scales above are relative scales: they give you a useful number to describe the thermodynamic energy of a system but they do so by creating a scale which is relative to some physical standard (whether that be the triple-point of water or the 'heat of a healthy man').

Back in 1787, however, Jacques Charles was able to prove that, for any given increase in temperature, T, all gases undergo an equivalent increase in volume, V.

Rather handily, this allows us to predict gaseous behaviour without reference to the particular gas being examined. It's as if gases were fulfilling some Platonic conceit, all acting in a fashion essentially identical to an imagined ideal gas. Hence the 'ideal gas scale' which describes the behaviour of gases under changing pressure without reference to any particular gas.

The Platonic ideal falls apart at very high pressures because of simple physical and chemical interactions. For the sort of pressures needed to use a gas as a thermometric medium (ie measurer of temperature) on earth, however, all gases exhibit the same, very simple behaviour described by the following equation:

pV = [constant]T

or in words:

pressure multiplied by Volume = [a derived constant] multiplied by Temperature

Which means if you keep the pressure constant, as the temperature changes so does the volume. Or, if you change the temperature and keep the volume constant, the pressure goes up or down in direct relation to the temperature's rise or fall.

One very nifty thing about this is the way it makes it possible to create a temperature scale which is independent of the medium used to delineate the scale.

Back in 1887, P Chappuis conducted studies using gas thermometers which used hydrogen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide as the thermometric media at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM). Regardless of the gas he used, he found very little difference in the temperature scale generated. If the temperature of the gases changed by a value T, and the pressure, P, was held still, the increase in volume, V, was the same regardless of the gas being used to set the scale.

This change in thermodynamic activity has been recognised and accepted as the fundamental measure of temperature, since it is derived from measures of pressure and volume that aren't dependent on the substance being measured.

One of the most important consequences of this discovery is the recognition that there is a naturally defined absolute zero temperature value. When the pressure exerted by a gas reaches zero, the temperature is also zero. It is impossible to get 'colder' than this, since at this temperature all atomic and sub-atomic activity has ceased. (And, before anyone asks, yes I know what negative temperature is, and it isn't a temperature 'below absolute zero.' Systems with negative temperature are actually hotter than they are when they have positive temperature.)

In 1933 the International Committee of Weights and Measures adopted a scale system based on absolute temperature. It is called the Kelvin scale and uses the same unitary value for single degrees as the modern Celsius scale. So a one-degree change as measured by the Kelvin scale represents the same change in temperature as a one-degree change as measured using the Celsius scale.

The zero-point for the Kelvin scale, however isn't an arbitrary one (eg the freezing point of water) but the absolute one.

Absolute zero is, as it happens, equivalent to -273.15 C, so converting between K and C is a simple matter of addition or subtraction:

C = K - 273.15
K = C + 273.15

So 0 degrees Celsius is 273.15 Kelvin. Using standard notation for each scale we can re-state this sentence thus:

0°C = 273.15K

Note there is no degree symbol used when denoting a temperature in Kelvin. And, just as there is no degree symbol, the word isn't used either. The phrase 'degrees Kelvin' is incorrect: just use the word 'Kelvin.'

Which brings us, finally, to explaining how I arrived at the temperature I listed at the beginning of this article. As I noted above, the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales are relative scales, so you can't compare two different temperatures measured using these scales absolutely.

20°C is not twice as warm as 10°C, since both are a measure relative to the triple point of water.

The Kelvin scale, however, is an absolute scale. Different values measured using this scale are related in absolute comparative terms. 20K is twice as warm as 10K (although both values are pretty damned cold relative to what you or I are comfortable with).

So, to find out what temperature (in degrees Celsius) would be 'twice as cold' (ie half the temperature) of 0°C I simply converted the value to Kelvin:

0 + 273.15 = 273.15K

Divided this value by 2:

273.15/2 = 136.575 K

and converted it back to degrees Celsius:

136.575 - 273.15 = -136.575°C

Working in the other direction, twice as hot as 0°C is easy to calculate. It's 273.15°C. Which is rather hotter than any human can handle.

If nothing else, this demonstrates how narrow a range of temperatures suit human beings. Let's presume -10°C – 50°C is a useful range of liveable temperatures for human beings.

I'm being generous with this range. The low is, in human terms, well below the freezing point of water. And the high is, again in human terms, a long way above blood temperature. This range is only acceptable as a liveable range if we assume 1) the range refers to measured temperatures and 2) we have technology capable of keeping experienced temperatures (eg, in a dwelling or next to human skin) from reaching these extremes of heat and cold.

Converting this to Kelvin, we have a range of 263K – 323K. (I'm leaving the 0.15 off: it doesn't change the arithmetic, other than to needlessly complicate things.)

The lowest temperature in this range is 81% of the highest temperature in this range. 323K (50°C) is only 19% warmer than 263K (-10°C).

Change the liveable range to 0°C – 40°C (a range more genuinely liveable, especially if we assume only basic available technology) and the hottest we can reasonably handle is only 13% warmer than the coldest we can live with.

Be even more conservative, and restrict the range so it runs roughly through the human comfort zone: 10°C – 35°C (a range that goes from 'cold if you don't have warm clothing' through to 'hot in the sun but bearable if there's almost any sort of breeze') and the hottest weather we can comfortably manage is only 9% warmer than the coldest most of us are willing to deal with.

No wonder folk are concerned about a 0.6°C increase in global surface temperatures over the last 100 years.

Mind Your Apostrophes

The apostrophe is the most troublesome mark in all English punctuation.

Broadly put, these troubles can be divided into four distinct areas:

  1. Computer-specific issues

  2. Using the apostrophe to indicate a contraction

  3. Using the apostrophe to indicate a possessive

  4. Differences between American and Commonwealth English

There is a fair degree of overlap between these areas, but dividing the troubles into four makes all the problems a little easier to handle.

Computer-specific issues

Computer-specific troubles associated with this little mark can be put down the limitations of the ASCII character set.

This old, but still widely used, 7-bit character set, forces computer users to overload the so-called 'typewriter quote' by dragooning it into use as:

the opening single-quote mark
the closing single-quote mark
the apostrophe
the prime mark

(Before anyone asks, the prime mark is used to indicate arcminutes when writing out degrees of longitude and latitude, as in 34° 57′ South, 138° 31′ East. It is also used in the United States as a shorthand for 'feet' in their legacy, non-metric measurement system.)

By contrast, most 8-bit character sets enable computer users to represent all of these characters properly (ISO 8859-1 aka Latin-1, the default character set used on computers running X-Windows is a notable and frustrating exception). The problem then becomes ‘which 8-bit character set?'. MacRoman? Windows Latin-1? Never forgetting the application viewing the text might not use the same character set to display 'extended ASCII' characters as the application used to create said text.

All of which explains and justifies, albeit briefly, Unicode.

I'm an unashamed fan of Unicode. It is an effective, well-designed, open, fully-documented and multi-platform alternative to ASCII and its various bastard-children. Unfortunately -- as of late-2005 at least -- it isn't as widely used as I'd wish. For example, I'm still unwilling to switch away from plain ASCII for e-mail communications across computing platforms.

Given time, Unicode can and, I hope, will become the lowest-common denominator character encoding format for text exchange. If nothing else, I'd like to be in a position to use em-dashes and curly quotes in my e-mail.

Even assuming this happens, however, I don't expect writers will suddenly start using the apostrophe and similar marks with due care.

Rather, the widespread adoption of Unicode will, I suspect, result in at least two things:

  1. it will fully expose the extent to which most computer users don't know how to create opening and closing single-quote marks (to say nothing of the general ignorance of the prime mark's existence at all).

  2. it will do nothing to improve the use of the apostrophe proper in written communications.

With regards result 1 above, so-called ‘smart quotes' capabilities built-in to most word processors mean typographer's quote marks and apostrophes turn up automagically in many people's written work already. Hardly problem solved, but definitely problem ameliorated.

With regards result 2 above there is no curing the problem automatically. There is only taking the time to learn the over-loaded ways of the apostrophe and quote mark. So let's take the time.

Using the apostrophe to indicate a contraction

The first place I remember being taught about the apostrophe is its use as a marker denoting missing letters in contractions:

can not becomes can't in everyday speech
will not becomes won't in everyday speech
because becomes ’cause in casual speech
and becomes ’n' in bad advertising

And so on.

The last two examples above are worth paying attention to, especially if you are in a position to use proper opening and closing marks. In an ASCII-only setting, there is no question which character to use for an apostrophe: the typewriter or tear-drop mark is the only one available, so it's the one to use.

If you are able to use proper opening and closing marks, however, denote missing letters in a word with the apostrophe or closing mark, even if the missing letter is at the beginning of the word.

Folks following Commonwealth English rules, especially, need to watch for this. Because Commonwealth editorial habit is to use single quote marks for direct speech and quotation, it is very easy to see a single quote mark at the beginning of a word or phrase (or single letter as in the example above) and, almost automatically, set an opening quote mark.

Even if you follow US English practice (which prefers double quote marks for direct speech and quotation) this is an easy error to generate, especially if you've gotten into the habit of typing the typewriter mark and letting your software's ‘smart quotes' feature generate an opening or closing mark on your behalf.

No software that I'm aware of tries to distinquish between 'a word with an initial letter missing that requires an apostrophe' and 'a space followed by a typewriter quote mark that requires an opening quote'. In every case, the underlying algorithm will treat a space followed by a typewriter quote as cause to automagically turn said typewriter quote into an opening quote mark.

Using the apostrophe to indicate a possessive

This is, perhaps, the most troublesome use of a generally troublesome mark. That said, the basic rule for possessives is quite straightfoward: to denote possession, put an apostrophe and a lower-case ‘s' at the end of the noun (ie person, place or thing) which owns. So we have:

If you're having trouble deciding if a noun requires a possessive apostrophe re-cast the sentence so it has the form:

the [thing owned] of [the owner].

For example, each of the above sentences could be presented as follows:

  • the unusual interest in punctuation of Brian.
  • the failing memory of George.
  • the thoughts on the subject of possessive apostrophes of somebody else.
  • the searchable UseNet archive of Google.
  • the despair at my distractability of my wife.

None of these sentences is elegant, or even acceptable, English (‘of Google', in particular, grates my editor's ear). But they make it clear what is possessed and who or what possesses. With that established it's easier to use the possessive apostrophe correctly in the preferred constructions further above.

Unfortunately, establishing that a noun can take the possessive doesn't mean it should. Most will, but some won't, and the exceptions start to pile up the more you look into the question.

First up, it's worth noting that, just because a word ends with a letter ‘s', doesn't mean it doesn't take the standard 'apostrophe-s' to indicate possession. Many such words behave like other words. To wit:

  • James's last album
  • The bus's inability to arrive on time.

A noun which ends in s because it is the plural form doesn't take apostrophe-s, however: it only takes the apostrophe, like so:

  • the Klingons' preference for Shakespeare 'in the original Klingon.'
  • the ladies' powder room.
  • four weeks' holiday.
  • the footballers' training camp.

The logic for this has two aspects. First, we add a possessive apostrophe after the ‘s' in plural nouns because the thing that owns is the collective entity, not an individual example thereof. The apostrophe has to go after the plural ‘s' in such a case, to distinguish it from a possessive ‘s', which indicates that an individual member of the collective is the owner. For example:

The dogs' persistence was rewarded when they finally managed to wrest my dog's bone from her jaws.

The first possessive -- dogs' -- indicates it is a pack of dogs who are persisting. The second possessive -- dog's -- indicates it is a single dog that has lost her dinner.

And, please, please, don't forget the difference between one lady and many ladies.

The lady's powder room

is a powder room belonging to a particular woman.

The ladies' powder room

is a powder room available for use by any number of women.

As for the missing ‘s' in these plural possessives: its absence is fairly easy to explain. We don't pronounce these words with two ess sounds, so we don't write them with two s's.

This logic is also the basis of the second general exception to the 'always add apostrophe-s for possesives' rule: names that end in ‘s' only take apostrophe-s to indicate possesion if we actually pronounce the second s. So

  • Saint Saens' pre-occupation with organ music.
  • Socrates' self-righteousness.
  • Aristophanes' cynicism.
  • Ulysses' screwed up love-life.


  • Jesus's disciples.
  • Kiss's pyrotechnic rock concerts.

It's this second exception -- the not adding apostrophe-s on some words that end with s -- that causes most arguments.

There are those who still argue for 'Jesus' disciples' based on a 'classical names don't take the s' rule that occasionally appears in old style guides. FWIW, I don't follow this rule, primarily because even the old style guides can't agree what constitutes a 'classical name' for the purposes of applying the exception.

And the 'we add apostrophe-s if we pronounce the second s' rule is subject to local pronunciation habits.

I write 'Dr Jones's Office' because I say 'Doctor Jones's Office' (that is, I pronounce the second s). If you say 'Doctor Jones' Office' (ie you don't pronounce the second s) you would, quite rightly, leave the second ‘s' off the written version.

Since English pronounciation varies widely, even amongst native speakers, nothing is gained arguing for 'one true way' of writing such possessives. Which won't stop people arguing, sometimes passionately, for their preferred approach.

My only advice: be consistent. And don't waste a lot of energy if your editor has a different preference. Just remember who's authorising accounting to write your cheque.

it's vs its or pronoun possessives

The final exception to the 'add apostrophe-s to indicate possession' rule is the most problematic, which is why it gets a sub-head all its own.

Pronouns are the special case in the 'indicating possession' stakes: they never take the possessive apostrophe. So we have:

  • He lost his mind.
  • These rocks are ours. Those rocks over there are yours.
  • The snake coiled its body around the hapless pig.

The biggie here is possessive 'its'. Because the word 'it's' exists (it's the contraction for 'it is') it is common in the extreme to see errors such as 'The snake coiled it's body...' even in professionally written and edited writing.

It's an incredibly easy error to make, and not as easy to detect as you might think. There are, however, at least two ways of avoiding the error in the first place or detecting it in the second.

I learned the 'no pronouns take the possessive apostrophe' rule. So, if I have a moment's doubt, I just mentally substitute 'his' or 'hers' and, voila, I know which spelling is correct.

  • The snake coiled his body around the hapless pig.

This still makes sense, so it's correct to use the possessive 'its' here. OTOH

  • Whatever it's doing, the pig wants it to stop.

Substitute 'it's' with a gender-specific pronoun like 'his' and the sentence doesn't make sense:

  • Whatever his doing, the pig wants it to stop.

So, this sentence is using the contraction of 'it's'. The apostrophe indicating the missing 'i' is correct here.

Another way of checking for missing or errant apostrophes is to concentrate on 'it's' as a contracted form. If you write 'it's' in a sentence, mentally read it out in full as 'it is' to check if the sentence still makes sense.

Other methods for avoiding the error can be devised, I'm sure.

One more difference between American and Commonwealth English

In American English the apostrophe is used to form plural numeric dates:

the 1930’s.
the swinging ’60’s.

This is incorrect in Commonwealth English which treats the numbers as if they were letters and sees the added ‘s' as nothing more than an extra letter denoting the plural on an otherwise correctly spelled word:

the 1930s.
the swinging ’60s.

(Note in both examples, however, the apostrophe before the 60. This is to denote missing characters: in this case the characters are ‘19’.)

Both Commonwealth and American English put the apostrophe to use in forming other unusual plurals, however. For example, when suggesting we should

mind our p's and q's

the apostrophe-s to denote the plural of individual letters is the preferred form for followers of Hart's Rules and devotees of the Chicago Manual of Style.

Why Does Anyone Care About This?

Finally, for those who think this is all a distraction from 'real work' I 1) wonder why you've read this far and 2) offer Paul Robinson's sublimely wonderful The Philosophy of Punctuation. Short, sweet and an almost pure delight.

The Passion of the Christ: an inflammatory perspective

Take a quick trip with me back to the mid-1980s. My first job post-uni I luck out. I make a lot of money twiddling test tubes on the Moomba gas fields in the Cooper Basin (South Australia's mid-north, up near Cooper's Creek, where Burke & Wills died).

Moomba is a hyper-masculine world. There are no women, and there are a few men avoiding the watchful eye of the constabulary in their home towns. We work fortnight-on/fortnight-off shifts (fourteen days in the field, fourteen days at home, repeat ad nauseam). It's the embodiment of Australian 'mateship.' It's also the embodiment of Australian boozing and brawling.

Fast forward several shifts. We newbies aren't wet behind the ears anymore but we're still spending more time together than with the old hands. A kid my age and I are having lunch in a transportable behind the main laboratory. His parents are Greek immigrants. My mother's father escaped the Nazis in ’33 by jumping ship in Port Adelaide and staying on as an illegal immigrant. (He got legal by joining the army in ’39 and served in North Africa and New Guinea.)

I know about the kid's Greek (and Greek Orthodox) background, because he wears it on his sleeve. I don't know if he knows I'm Jewish. I'm not a closet Jew but I don't wear my religion on my sleeve (or my head).

I don't remember how, but the conversation turns to the then emerging AIDS crisis. It gets a bit tense. The kid's homophobic and very quickly suggests AIDS is 'their fault.' I note that HIV is not 'just a gay disease.' Besides, blaming someone for being infected by a disease is like blaming the Jews for being caught in the Holocaust.

I've never forgotten his reply.

'Maybe the Jews deserved it, too.'

I didn't hit him. I didn't shout at him. In fact, I didn't say anything. I walked away and never spoke to him again.

So, do I think Gibson's film will inflame anti-Semitic feeling? Do I think it will revive the deicide slander?

Yes, I do.

Do I think Gibson should be stopped? That the film should be banned?

Of course I don't. Supporting freedom of speech means defending speech you don't like.

Do I think Gibson has guts putting the film together in the first place?

Not particularly.

The Western world is still Christendom. Christians of whatever denomination may disagree, but they're distracted by details. Traditional Hindus decry the secularisation of India but that doesn't make day-to-day life in India less culturally bound to Vedic myths and traditions.

Similarly in the West. People living here may be woefully undereducated about their religious traditions and mostly clueless about history and theology, but Westerners still equate 'religion' with Jesus and Christmas and 'good will to all [people who look like me or at least dress like me and use the same civil calendar]’.

Making a gory film which says Jesus was the coolest guy ever is about as gutsy as singing a be-bop version of the US national anthem at a US baseball game. It's different but hardly threatening to the pre-conceived notions the audience has about the material.

For myself, I'm glad Gibson's film is fomenting the reactions it is. I've never trusted the whole post-Vatican II 'Jewish-Christian relations' schtick. 2,000 years of slander and blood and murder and suddenly it's 'all's forgiven, we really like and respect you guys?' Yeah, right.

If Gibson's film reveals a festering anti-Semitism just under the surface of Western society, I'm all for it. It's always good to know who your enemies are.

The Gentle Art of Pitching

No-one but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money. Professionalism is no virtue; a professional is simply one who gets paid for doing what an amateur does for love. But in a money economy, the fact of being paid means your work is going to be circulated, is going to be read; it's the means to communication, which is the artist's goal.
Samuel Johnson
Life of Johnson
by James Boswell
Ursula K Le Guin
The Wind's Twelve Quarters
from the Introduction to 'April In Paris'

It doesn’t matter if you take Johnson’s hard-nosed approach or prefer Le Guin’s pragmatic acceptance of reality, your understanding should be the same: no-one cares how deeply or sincerely you want to write.

Sincerity is like honesty. A valuable commodity in its own right but no guarantee a person can write. I’ve known more than a few miserable bastards who could (and do) write like angels.

People in the business of buying words care about said words, not how hard they were to put down or how much you want to keep doing so.

Wordsmithing is a trade and a profession. It’s a lot of other things as well. For me, for example, it’s the only viable alternative to skid row (I’m a lousy employee). Others dignify the craft and their obsession with it using labels like ‘calling’ or ‘art’ and they aren’t necessarily wrong. But getting paid for putting the right words in the right order is a trade and a profession before it is anything else.

Which makes a writer a salesperson. Every day you head into the marketplace, pitching your craft skills and the pithy words resulting from said skills. And, just like every other salesperson, you will mostly be pitching to complete strangers.

Selling your precious creations to strangers is almost the entire writing game. You make a pitch to a person in a position to give you money for your words. They accept the pitch and ask to see the work. If they want it, they give you money and you get a credit. (Byline; name in print; and published are other terms for the same thing: the visible sign someone's paid you money for words.) If they don’t want it they say ‘thanks but no thanks’ and you find someone else in the market for words and make the pitch to them.

After you’ve made a few sales you may find yourself in the happy position of having these buyers calling you offering money before you’ve got words to sell. Or, you’ll be in the happy position where you’ll pitch and they’ll buy your words on the basis of the pitch alone. I’m in both these happy positions as a writer of non-fiction and journalism. Consequently, in these markets I don’t touch a keyboard until someone has already agreed to purchase the words.

In other markets (eg screenwriting) I’m in much the same position as any other beginner. So I find people in a position to give me money for my words and make my pitch. Repeat as necessary.

A writer is a salesperson, first and foremost. If you don’t like the idea of selling words, find another way of making a living.

If the idea of selling words doesn’t put you off, you’ll need to master at least one other art besides writing: the art of pitching. And pitching is selling. Nothing more and nothing less. Or, to quote screenwriter Max Adams:

All pitches are Sales, with a capital S.

Max Adams
The Screenwriter’s Survival Guide or Guerrilla Meeting Tactics and Other Acts of War
from Chapter 5 ‘What a Pitch Is, and Isn’t’

So how long is a writer’s sales call? How long do you have to pitch? Depending on circumstance, between 30 seconds and 5 minutes.

At the 30-second end is a cold-call pitch to an editor at a newspaper or magazine or an assistant at a film or TV production company. You’ve got maybe thirty seconds to convince them that 1) you aren’t a complete idiot, and 2) your story is worth taking a closer look at.

At the luxury 5-minute end of things, you’ve probably been invited to pitch, and you’re pitching something pretty substantial, like a column idea, a major feature article (upwards of 3,000 words) or even an entire book or film.

Pitching isn’t easy, and each market has its own rules, quirks and expectations. But the single most important thing to have in your pitch is a hook. A reason for the buyer to want to hear more. And you’ve got to get that hook out there in half-a-minute, perhaps less.

Having a hook is perhaps most important if you want to sell fiction. The business of selling fiction, whether it be books, short-stories, films or TV-series, is fraught with failure and there appears to be no rhyme or reason to these failures. As screenwriter William Goldman once famously observed, in the world of buying and selling made-up stories, ‘no-one knows anything.’

Max Adams has a formula for making the hook of a fiction clear. It revolves around three words: ‘must’ and ‘or else.’ What must the person with the most to lose do or else what dire thing will happen. For example:

Raiders of the Lost Ark is an action/adventure about Indiana Jones, a procurer of lost artifacts who must travel to Egypt and find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis unearth it and use it to take over the world.

Max Adams
The Screenwriter’s Survival Guide or Guerrilla Meeting Tactics and Other Acts of War
from Chapter 6 ‘Pitching a Spec Script’

That’s a story I want to read, or see, or listen to. The ‘or else’ is pretty damned major (the Nazis take over the world) and the ‘must’ (find the Ark of the Covenant) isn’t chopped liver either.

Note how nothing is held back. This pitch isn’t a tease. It tells the whole story in 40 words but leaves you wanting to know more. It's the sort of pitch that can turn a thirty-second phone call into a five-minute conversation and, perhaps, an invitation to submit the material or come in and talk some more.

Buyers of non-fiction and journalism want hooks just as much as producers and fiction editors do. But they look at material differently. An acquisitions editor for a fiction imprint or the commissioning producer at a film or TV production company might make less than one purchase a month. An editor at a newspaper or magazine likely makes dozens of purchases every week.

Buyers of non-fiction need more material and they need it more often. The hooks that grab their attention are as much about filling their publications with words as they are about making sure those words are compelling and interesting.

During the early-1990s I wrote a weekly computer column. The hook was easy. Lots of ordinary people are suddenly buying computers they can't use: this column will fill in the blanks, week-by-week. Readers will keep coming and advertisers will follow forthwith.

That pitch -- almost literally: that’s about as long as my pitch was -- got me a weekly column which paid the bills (and more) for two years. (I quit over editorial and advertising interference, by the way: I had to scramble to make up the lost income but I never regretted keeping my integrity intact.)

Another pitch -- this time to Australian MacUser -- consisted of: 'you don't have a book review column, want me to write one?' Two years worth of regular cheques and several thousand dollars worth of books thanks to that sentence.

In each of the above cases I was offering a solution to a problem the publication didn’t necessarily have. Computer columns and book review columns are common enough but not every newspaper or magazine needs them. That said, each pitch was directed at the daily problem magazine and newspaper editors face: what copy do I put between the ads that will keep readers coming back each issue.

The primary risk I was taking when pitching the columns above was that they were columns. Pitching a column (or any regular feature) means you’re selling not just a story, but a never-ending series of stories. Editors are, rightly, cautious of such pitches, especially from writers they don’t know.

More common, and much easier to pitch, are one-off stories that promise topicality or controversy.

Consequent to being burgled in December 1999 I sold an opinion piece (op-ed) to The Age, using the experience to build an argument for decriminalising narcotics. A controversial subject then (and now) judging from some of the hate mail forwarded to me in the following weeks.

My initial pitch: I’ve just been burgled, the police think it was drug addicts. I've got 900 words on the experience that argue this burglary (and others like it) is exactly why narcotics should be de-criminalised.

Back in 1990, just after the long-planned but mostly non-existent Adelaide Football Club was hurriedly pushed into gear to pre-empt Port Adelaide's efforts to join the then VFL, I sold a what-if piece in which I mapped the history of professional gridiron leagues in the United States onto an imaginary future for Australian football. The future of football was in the news at the time and my article was timely and topical.

My initial pitch: What if football was to split into two professional leagues here in Australia just as gridiron did in the US in the 1960s? I can do 1500 words on what that might mean, and it doesn't paint the VFL/AFL as the winners. (This latter likely helped, by the way, since I was pitching to The Advertiser, a parochial South Australian morning daily then and now.)

In 1991 the editors of Mean Streets, a then-new magazine (now long-defunct), accepted a pitch from my writing partner and I. Mean Streets was a specialist magazine covering crime fiction and they bought our article on two detectives from the comics, a medium generally ignored by readers of crime fiction.

Our initial pitch: we can introduce your readers to two entertaining fictional detectives they've likely never heard of.

Notice, despite the difference in form, medium and purpose, the article pitches are not unlike Max Adams’s imaginary pitch for Raiders of the Lost Ark. The pitches don’t tease. They tell the whole story in a sentence or two, making the case for why the editor should want to hear more by being 1) germane to the publication's purpose and 2) topical, timely and/or controversial.

No matter who you’re pitching to, or what you’re pitching, you are presenting yourself and your material as the solution to a problem they have. They need to buy words to stay in business. You have words to sell.

With that said, don’t forget the other side of this shiny opportunity. Editors and producers have too much to read. And they have too much to read all the time.

It's only human for such folk to look for ways of reducing their workload. And one of the best ways of doing that is to dismiss you and your work out-of-hand. So don’t come across badly. Sound professional and together and don’t be a time-waster.

Match your material to your market. There was little point trying to sell my what-if piece regarding Australian football to The Age (a Melbourne paper: its readers likely wouldn’t like the slant I took) or The Sydney Morning Herald (at the time football was seen as a Victorian game by most Sydney-siders). And ‘A Mouse with Spirit’ is of no interest to a gardening magazine. It's even too specialised for a general literary journal.

Match your material to the moment. My Australian football piece wouldn’t be sellable in its current form today. And my op-ed depended on immediacy for much of its initial impact.

Finally, and perhaps most important of all, don’t pitch anything but the story. To quote Adams again:

The purpose of pitches is to sell, and what you’re selling is either you, the writer, and the [story] you’ve written; or you, the writer, and the story you want [someone] to buy and hire you to write. So both pitches are about selling you, the writer; however, even though in both instances you are selling you, you are not the subject of the pitch. The story is the subject of the pitch. Always.

Max Adams
The Screenwriter's Survival Guide or Guerrilla Meeting Tactics and Other Acts of War
from Chapter 5 ‘What a Pitch Is, and Isn’t’

Never forget this. When making your pitch tell the story you want to sell, not your life-story. A buyer will probably ask about your experience and credits, but they won’t ask about them until after you’ve piqued their interest.

And this is good news for beginning freelancers. It means not having any credits isn’t a deal-breaker. Get them interested in your tale and you’re a long way closer to your first sale.

Of course interest isn’t a sale, and anyone looking at work from a new writer is going to be more cautious than they are with material from old hands. But that just means you have to write the story well, and you were going to do that anyway.

As for specifics, in the magazine and newspaper worlds an editor is unlikely to offer a formal commission (ie an agreement to pay for an article not-yet-written) to a new writer. Instead they'll ask you to write the story in advance or ‘on spec,’ the standard shorthand for ‘on the speculation someone will buy it.’ (Actually, in mid-2003 publishing is in the advertising doldrums. Even a lot of old hands are writing material on spec.)

In film and fiction, it’s even worse. You’ll need to write the screenplay or book before you even make the pitch. Why? If your pitch sells the story well enough someone wants to read it, that someone will expect the finished tale on their desk in the next day or so.

To sum up:

  • Sincerity, desire and ambition count for almost nothing.
  • Good stories, well told and delivered by the deadline count for everything.
  • You have about half-a-minute to convince a buyer you aren't a complete idiot.
  • Understand why the story is interesting to other people and concentrate on that when making your pitch.
  • Work out what problem it solves for the buyer and make that part of the pitch.
  • Remember, remember, remember: you are not the story.